Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What If: Judy Garland and the Fifties Musical

I like to play little what if? games sometimes with classic films and filmmakers, asking myself what would have happened if X Y or Z had occurred. It's fun (at least I think it's fun) to contemplate the different ways film history might have changed. I was thinking about one of these what ifs last night, and I thought I'd share it. (Maybe I'll make this a semi-regular feature on the blog. We'll see.)

This what if concerns Judy Garland. Before I get to the question itself, let's set it up. In the mid-1930s, while she was barely a teenager, Judy did her apprenticeship at MGM. She was most successful playing the female sidekick to Mickey Rooney. By the time she made THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939, however, the studio was already wondering if Judy could start carrying movies by herself. Although OZ wasn't an immediate hit (it did good box office but cost a lot to make and didn't turn a profit until it was rereleased a few years later), it did establish that Judy was worthy of the spotlight. The studio kept her paired with Rooney for a few more years to squeeze out as many "Mickey and Judy" dollars as possible, but it also began easing Garland into her own star vehicles like FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942) and PRESENTING LILY MARS (1943). When she struck box office gold with MEET ME IN ST LOUIS in 1944, Judy Garland was officially a star in her own right. For the next six years she enjoyed hits like THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946), EASTER PARADE (1948) and SUMMER STOCK (1950). 

As her star rose, however, Judy began to be a problem on set. She had crippling stage fright which, when combined with deepening drug abuse, made her steadily more difficult to work with. In practical terms that meant that some days it was impossible to get her in front of a camera, costing the studio thousands of dollars for every minute the crew stood around waiting. Finally, after she completed SUMMER STOCK in 1950, MGM did the previously unthinkable and fired Judy.

Now, this is where we might do a what if? What if Judy had somehow pulled herself together and didn't get fired from MGM in 1950? It's interesting to consider, though I think the answer isn't as simple as 'we would have gotten more great Judy MGM musicals.' Yes, we would have gotten her in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, which she'd already begun shooting when she was fired. (She was replaced by Betty Hutton.) Yes, she probably would have starred in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN with Gene Kelly, which is what he wanted. That would have been interesting.

But by 1950, Judy was burned out doing the whole 'happy and I know it' song and dance routine at MGM. What happened to her when she got fired was that she was forced to go and become Judy Garland the singer, to tour and record fulltime, rather than being Judy Garland the singing movie star. And this is the key, because it was only at this point in her career that Judy really became the auteur of her own career. While she had been one of the greatest and most iconic of movie stars, she'd also been a cog in the machine, a commodity for the studio to shape and distribute as it saw fit.  On her own, however, she shaped her art to her own will. She became a legendary live performer with historic runs in London and New York, culminating in her smash hit album JUDY AT CARNEGIE HALL in 1961. What's notable is that her studio albums and live recordings have more of an edge to them than her previous work for MGM. Their pathos is deeper, their wit is sharper.

In the sixties, she returned to movies, making a handful of films, but it's notable that she mostly made dramas like JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and A CHILD IS WAITING. Her only film role in the 1950s was her triumphant performance in George Cukor's A STAR IS BORN (1954).

And it's A STAR IS BORN that leads us to our big what if. Although the film was heralded as a masterpiece and a great comeback for Judy, it failed to make money. I won't get into the details of why this happened (it has a lot to do with Warner Brothers, the studio that released it), but it will suffice to say that Judy took a lot of blame that she didn't deserve. But what if the film had been a success? What if Judy could have set up her shingle at Warner Brothers and made two or three (of more) musicals for them?

Because one thing that is fascinating about A STAR IS BORN is that it's more of a Judy Garland joint that any other film she made. She and her husband Sid Luft were the primary movers and shakers on the production. The entire film was geared toward being a showcase for the talents of Judy Garland: belting out up-tempo tunes, crooning slow torch songs, and displaying her acting chops. (She lost Best Actress to Grace Kelly that year, and I'd say that time has offered a different verdict except that even at the time it was obvious that Garland should have won.) More tellingly, the movie was dark. This wasn't a musical comedy like all those smiley pictures she made for MGM. This story ends with a suicide. This is a musical drama.

What if Judy had been able to make more musical dramas in the 50s? Her drinking buddy Humphrey Bogart took on darker and darker roles in the 50s, deepening the meaning of his onscreen persona. What if Garland had been allowed to do that with the musical? Listen to her song "Me and My Shadow" off her 1957 studio album masterpiece ALONE, and ask yourself what kind of film that song would have fit into. I want to see that film. I bet it would have been great. 

Friday, March 13, 2020


A brief note at the start: I wrote this little piece a few years ago because I was interested in film noirs about outbreaks. The best known “contagion noir” of the classic era is probably Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950). It’s a superior piece of craftsmanship, and it features a you-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it performance by Jack Palance as a psycho. Having said that, however, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (made that same year) is more paranoid and more obsessed with contagion itself. With its all too serious docu-noir feel, it’s actually the more disturbing piece of work, especially watched at this particular moment in time in 2020. Some people reading this will doubtless think, “Well, then, why would I want to watch it?” Others will want to watch it precisely because it is scary, its creepiness acting like an exorcism for a certain anxiety around the spread of the coronavirus. You know who you are.

One of the constant themes of film noir is anxiety. You find this theme expressed many different ways: anxiety about gender roles, anxiety about the cops, anxiety about Communist infiltration. You find this theme over and over in noir. What makes THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK such an interesting addition to this litany is that it’s about a different kind of anxiety: the fear of contagion.

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK concerns a diamond smuggler named Shelia Bennett (Evelyn Keyes) who, as the film begins, has just snuck some stones back into the country from Cuba for her no-good husband Matt (Charles Korvin). What she doesn’t know is that she’s also brought back a case of smallpox. In no time at all, she’s spread it around the city and people start dropping like flies. Meanwhile, Shelia’s husband runs out on her—taking the diamonds—and leaves her to deal with the cops and a growing epidemic. The plot runs on different tracks: the cops (led by noir stalwart Barry Kelley) are chasing a jewel smuggler, while the doctors (led by William Bishop, Dorothy Malone and Carl Benton Reid) are chasing the carrier of the plague. It’s fun watching these people run around—the doctors racing against time—until their twin investigations converge on poor Shelia Bennett.

Shelia’s got her own problems, of course. She knows the cops are after her, but she doesn’t yet know she has smallpox. Things only get worse when she finds out her no-good husband has been having an affair with her younger sister. When Shelia confronts her sister (Lola Albright), the confused girl—distraught that Matt has abandoned both of them—kills herself. Once Shelia finds out she’s carrying smallpox, her only goal becomes tracking down her husband so she can extract revenge before she dies.

This is a promising setup for a film, but as a drama it has one serious drawback: a pompous voiceover narration that intrudes over most of the first thirty minutes and then chimes in from time to time, coming in at the end to reassure us that the world didn’t end. Here’s an experiment: watch the first ten minutes of this film and imagine them without the voiceover. They not only would have worked, they would have worked better, with the audience discovering the plot in tandem with the characters.

Still, the film does work. It is directed proficiently by Earl McEvoy who juggles these different narratives without letting us get confused. He should have cut the voiceover—but what can you do? A lot of noirs have this device. It’s done often, if seldom done well. The cinematography by Joseph Biroc is a nice blend of location footage in New York and some atmospheric soundstage work such as Shelia’s final confrontation with her shiftless husband. Keyes is as good as usual as the vengeful Shelia, though because she’s unaware she’s carrying the disease for most of the film, she doesn’t have a whole lot to do.

To make up for this, the script by Harry Essex (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) does a particularly good job at building suspense around the emerging smallpox epidemic. These scenes are all business, especially with noir regular Carl Benton Reid barking orders and twisting arms, while doctor William Bishop and nurse Dorothy Malone confront a quickly mounting number of cases. One of the purposes of a movie like this is to function as a public service announcement, and I’ll be damned if this one didn’t work on me. Human beings are nasty creatures, so thank god for the Centers for Disease Control.

It probably worked even better at the time. In 1950, the world wasn’t too far away from the influenza pandemic of 1918 which had killed more people than WWI. Following WWII, where the world saw wartime carnage reach unthinkable proportions, Americans were fed a steady diet of propaganda about Communist infiltration and subversion. Even as we moved into the flattop fifties, with suburbia laid out on grids and a cheerful mother supposedly baking apple pies in every kitchen, it seemed as if contagion were everywhere. (A contagion that was often—as it is in THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK—associated with foreign elements.) The cleaner the surface became, the more we feared the filth inside. People began to fear obliteration, fearful it would arrive in a pestilence that would wipe out everything. By 1957, Ingmar Bergman could make THE SEVENTH SEAL, a film about the Black Plague that many people read as an allegory for the fear of nuclear annihilation.

In 1950, you can see the beginnings of the fear in something THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, the title itself conjuring the image of a serial-murderer on the loose. The fear of mass death is legitimate of course, and this film captures that dread, that sinking feeling that something could be happening right now that could mean the end of us all.